Walmart is the largest grocer in the U.S. That means when the company talks about dramatically cutting down on sodium, sugars, and other unhealthy elements in its food products, we should all listen. The company has already committed to doubling sales of produce from local farms, and this week, Walmart announced its most sweeping food commitment yet: a program that will eliminate industrial trans fats in all packaged food products that Walmart sells, slash added sugars by 10 percent in key categories of food products, and cut sodium by 25 percent in key categories of food products—all by 2015.
Walmart defines "key categories" as grain products, meats, dairy, condiments, snacks, and packaged prepared foods for sodium; and grain products, dairy, condiments, fruit drinks, and canned fruit for sugar.
As with the company's Sustainability Consortium, which aims to make products sold on store shelves more sustainable, Walmart will leverage its extensive supply chain network to make the necessary changes.
"This effort is aimed at eliminating sodium, sugar and trans fat in products. Often, it’s sodium or sugar that people don’t even know they are ingesting—for instance, when they are putting dressing on a salad, or making a turkey sandwich. Already, many of our suppliers have made important progress in this area. Our goal is not to supplant these efforts, but to encourage their widespread adoption. We see our role as a convener and a catalyst," said Bill Simon, President and CEO Walmart U.S, in a statement.
Since Walmart's suppliers work with so many other companies, required changes by Walmart could influence the whole grocery supply chain. Walmart estimates that if its food reformulations are adopted by the entire grocery industry, adults in the U.S. will ingest 47 million fewer pounds of sodium each year—that's the equivalent of the entire sodium intake of every resident of Los Angeles, New York City, and Chicago each year.
Walmart also plans to slash price premiums for healthier options (using its large scale and size), and the company is developing a front-of-package seal that will help customers identify healthier foods, to boot.
In a sense, Walmart is correcting a problem that it bred in the first place. According to a 2009 study from the University of North Carolina, one additional Walmart Supercenter per 100,000 residents increases the the obesity rate by 2.4 percentage points and average body mass index of locals by 0.25 units.
But it's hard to criticize Walmart's latest initiative. If the company wants fresher, healthier foods, its suppliers will comply—and that could dramatically affect the waistlines of the most obesity-afflicted areas of the U.S.